MADISON — Check out just about any college football preview and the Wisconsin Badgers are an after thought, typically picked to finish somewhere from fifth to eighth in the Big Ten. UW was one win from a Big Ten championship last year, but a 9-0 overall start spiraled into a 9-3 finish. Yet, the Badgers finished the year ranked No. 17 nationally and their 6-2 conference mark was good for third place, their best finish in five years.
But the mathematics of gridiron prognostication goes something like this: 14 new starters + 13 players signing NFL contracts = fighting to make a bowl game.
"Our expectations are always higher than the outside expectations," UW head coach Barry Alvarez says simply, when reminded of the projections.
Last year, an unhealthy recipe of injuries, inconsistency and ineffective play made UW's offense its worst since 1992. However, with a second-year starter in quarterback John Stocco surrounded by veteran skill players, and new co-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst in town to help rehabilitate the passing game, the Badgers are optimistic that the offense will be productive this season.
Seven starters are gone from what was one of the nation's best defenses, including six players now in the NFL. Nevertheless, the Badgers expect their defense to again be a strength.
"I'll be very surprised if we're not a good defensive team," Alvarez said.
One other small detail, of course. About two weeks before UW opened its fall camp, Alvarez announced that his forthcoming 16th season as the Badgers' head coach will be his last. He will retain the athletics director job he took over in April 2004, and defensive coordinator Bret Bielema will become the head football coach some time after this season ends.
"Everybody here came to play for coach Alvarez," junior left tackle Joe Thomas said. "They want to send him out on top."
The schedule is relatively kind. On paper, the Badgers will be challenged in three of their four non-conference games, and the Big Ten is going to be very tough this season. But UW's best opponents — Michigan, Iowa and Purdue — have to visit Camp Randall.
Position-by-position glance at the 2005 Badgers:
John Stocco never really faced competition this fall for the starting job he held for all 12 games last season. Backup Tyler Donovan (6-foot-1, 187 pounds) has improved, but has not come close to competing with Stocco for first-team reps. True freshman Dustin Sherer (6-4, 205) has surpassed redshirt freshman Bryan Savage (6-4, 211) for the No. 3 job.
Stocco still needs to be more consistently accurate and needs to do a better job getting the ball down the field, but he has improved in these areas, and has, by a wide margin, the best grasp of the offense. Most importantly, Stocco (6-2, 197) has earned the respect of his teammates with his leadership and poise.
As a sophomore last season Stocco completed 169 of 321 passes for 1,999 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. For the most part, he was a capable steward of the offense through the first nine games, all wins, and was superb in wins over Ohio State and Minnesota. But he struggled immensely during the Badgers' three-game losing streak to end the season. He has stated many times that he expects to learn and grow from those experiences. His improvement this year is the key to UW's offense and its season.
"John doesn't have a bigger fan than me and I thought he improved through nine games," Alvarez said. "But starting 12 games, winning big games, being in front of large crowds in big venues has to help him. I think he has to go into this season with much more confidence."
Donovan will likely still see playing time because of what he can do with his feet. With his quickness, Donovan can do a good tailback impersonation from his quarterback position. He has made enough progress as a signal caller to be considered a dual threat of sorts. Still, his command of the passing game is significantly short of Stocco's.
This is clearly the strength of the Badgers' offense. Junior Brian Calhoun (5-10, 194) sat out a transfer year last season and is good enough to make people forget that UW must replace its second all-time leading rusher in Anthony Davis. Two years ago Calhoun started at Colorado and had 810 yards rushing and 32 receptions. He is willing to run between the tackles, but is at his finest on the perimeter, where he can best use his game-breaking sprinter's speed.
"I don't feel any pressure," Calhoun said. "It's been a long time (since I played a game). I'm excited."
Calhoun brings an added dimension to UW's offense in that he has also been the team's most dynamic receiver during fall camp. He has very good hands and an uncanny ability to make people miss in the open field.
"You can be very creative with him in the game because he can line up as a legitimate wide receiver," Alvarez said.
UW proved last season that a team can never have too many tailbacks. Junior Booker Stanley (5-10, 214) struggled through a turf toe injury last year and averaged just three yards per carry, but after a strong spring and fall he looks rejuvenated and should complement Calhoun well. Stanley also is a good receiver; he was fourth on the team with 18 receptions last year.
In a pure sprint, sophomore Jamil Walker (6-2, 230) may be faster than Calhoun. He is not nearly as quick, and consistency is an issue, but he can be a powerful runner when he puts his mind to it. Walker had a jittery true freshman year but UW is counting on him to be a capable third option.
Had he not broken a bone above his foot the fifth day of practice, true freshman P.J. Hill would be competing with Walker for the third tailback spot. As it is, junior Dywon Rowan (5-9, 239) is No. 4 at the position.
The Badgers want to return to a bruising running game this season and that mentality starts with Matt Bernstein (6-2, 265), their fourth-year starter at fullback. Bernstein is one of the nation's best at his position, a powerful blocker and short-yardage runner. He was forced to play some tailback last year and rushed for 300 yards.
Redshirt freshman Bill Rentmeester (6-0, 249) and sophomore Chris Pressley (6-0, 258) will back up Bernstein. They have each shown promise, but neither has played a snap at fullback in a game. Rentmeester is quick and skilled enough to play tailback in a pinch and Pressley is the team's strongest player.
This is a veteran corps with five seniors at the top of the depth.
"We've got experience there," Alvarez said. "We've got guys who have been productive."
Receiver Brandon Williams (5-11, 175) is on target to break Lee Evans' UW career receptions record. He had 42 catches for 517 yards last year, but he has caught just one touchdown pass in the past two seasons. However, Williams was able to take part in summer conditioning for the first time in three years. As a result, he has had an extra gear this fall that was missing last season.
Jonathan Orr (6-3, 190) will start opposite Williams. Orr set a school freshman record with 842 receiving yards in 2002 but has been largely unproductive since and must be more consistent this season.
"You would like him to come out and have a breakout year," Alvarez said.
Brandon White (6-3, 190) is the third option at receiver. UW's best blocker at the position, White caught a career-best 17 passes last year.
Sophomore Marcus Randle El (5-10, 186) has had a very good camp and is the No. 4 receiver. He looks poised to press White and Orr for playing time.
Jason Pociask (6-3, 258) and Owen Daniels (6-3, 247) shared the starting tight end job with then-senior Tony Paciotti last season. Daniels, second at UW with 391 receiving yards in 2004, is one of the better pass receiving tight ends in the Big Ten and is improved as a blocker. Pociask is a capable receiver and a very good blocker.
The depth at receiver is developmental, but sophomore Jarvis Minton (6-1, 202) has shown promise after getting his feet wet last year. Sophomore Luke Swan's (6-0, 197) steady play in camp earned him a spot in the depth. Junior Jeff Holzbauer (5-11, 190) has been held out of camp due to injury, but is expected to be in the depth.
UW replaces three starters on the offensive line and has very little depth to work with. However, second-year starter left tackle Joe Thomas (6-8, 305) and third-year starter center Donovan Raiola (6-3, 295) are among the best at their positions in the Big Ten.
Replacing a pair of four-year starters at guard is daunting, but fifth-year seniors Jason Palermo (6-3, 307) and Matt Lawrence (6-5, 288) look capable. Redshirt freshman Kraig Urbik (6-6, 317) will start at right tackle.
The offensive line is a significant question mark, particularly because it will take time for the three new starters to mesh with Thomas and Raiola. Last season, the line was solid in pass protection but struggled at times when run blocking.
"I think our [No. 1 offensive] line is doing fine," Alvarez said during camp. "They cover people up, I think they are doing a nice job."
There are considerable questions with depth, however. Reserve guard Andy Kemp (6-6, 316) may become only the second true freshman offensive lineman to play during Alvarez's tenure. If Raiola were to get hurt, for instance, Palermo would move to center, Lawrence would likely shift to right guard, and Kemp could step into the lineup at left guard, where he has worked throughout camp.
However, sophomore Marcus Coleman (6-6, 309) has played across the line in practice while at UW and could end up being the first lineman off the bench in a pinch. He has played center and guard this fall.
The top reserve tackle when practice began was sophomore Danny Kaye (6-8, 320), but a knee injury robbed him of most of camp. As a result, true freshman Eric Vanden Heuvel (6-7, 325) has been the third tackle and UW might be forced to burn his redshirt.
Despite needing to replace four starters from a year ago, the line remains the strength of the Badgers' defense. And this is still the case even though UW's best defensive tackle, sophomore Justin Ostrowski (6-5, 304), is out indefinitely with a right knee injury.
The Badgers have considerable talent and decent depth on the defensive line, but none of these players has been asked to play 40-plus snaps a game so it remains to be seen how well they will handle the rigors of the position.
"I think as a defensive front right now we're playing very well against the run and against the pass," defensive line coach John Palermo said, midway through fall camp. "I'm very pleased with the young players at this point."
With Ostrowski out of the lineup, redshirt freshman Jason Chapman (6-4, 280) steps in as the starter at left tackle, after opening fall camp as a top reserve at defensive end. Sophomore Nick Hayden (6-5, 305) will start at right tackle and has looked like a playmaker in fall camp.
The starting defensive ends are sophomore Jamal Cooper (6-4, 217) and junior Joe Monty (6-2, 252). Sophomore Kurt Ware (6-4, 286), however, will rotate in frequently, filling in for Cooper on run downs and Monty on pass downs. Ware will also play tackle in the nickel.
Cooper is an explosive player who Palermo has said was the team's most productive lineman, play-for-play, last season. Despite his lack of girth, he holds up well because of exceptional quickness and sound technique.
"He'll be an outstanding pass rusher," Alvarez said.
True freshman end Matt Shaughnessy (6-6, 233) is a dynamic athlete who will help UW this year as a designated pass rusher. Redshirt freshman Mike Newkirk (6-3, 260) moved from end to tackle at the start of camp and will have a prominent place in the rotation. Sophomore end Brandon Kelly (6-4, 250) and redshirt freshman tackle Gino Cruse (6-5, 312) will also serve roles as reserves.
While all three starters return here, UW's coaches were not satisfied with the linebackers' production and were apprehensive about the position heading into 2005.
The exception to that rule is junior Mark Zalewski (6-2, 230), a potential all-conference player who tied for the team lead with 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Along with Cooper, Zalewski is one of the Badgers' two best defensive players. He started last season on the strongside, but was moved to middle linebacker midway through camp and could end up the starter at either spot.
Weakside linebacker Dontez Sanders (6-1, 226) led the team in tackles last season with 76 but needs to be more assignment-sure. The senior is a vocal leader on the defense. Though some expected him to face challenges for his starting spot this fall, Sanders quickly made it clear he was the team's No. 2 linebacker and its best option at the ‘will' spot.
UW wants to put its three best linebackers in the starting lineup, and whoever wins the third spot week-to-week will determine Zalewski's starting position.
Senior LaMarr Watkins (6-1, 223) has started eight games in his career, and though he did not letter last season, he will likely start on the strongside this year against pass-oriented teams.
Andy Crooks (6-3, 242) started five games in the middle as a true freshman last year and is expected to retain that spot against run-heavy offenses. Redshirt freshman walk-on Joshua Neal (5-10, 234), the son of former UW receiver Marvin Neal, is also pressing for regular playing time at ‘mike'.
An influx of hyper-talented freshmen has made the depth a whirlwind of possibilities.
True freshman DeAndre Levy (6-3, 220), a Milwaukee Vincent product, is the top reserve at the weakside ‘will' position.
Former Oak Creek standout Travis Beckum (6-4, 225), one of the nation's top recruits a year ago, is a backup at sam linebacker and may help out as a situational player.
Sophomore sam ‘backer Casey Hogan (6-5, 200) could play in the nickel or dime.
With three new starters the defensive backfield is another area of concern.
Senior cornerback Brett Bell (6-0, 200), the one returning starter in the secondary, played at an extremely high level last season. If he picked up where he left off he would be a first-team All-Big Ten performer this year.
However, Bell underwent surgery in January to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Just five-and-a-half months later Bell was on the practice field when fall camp began, but UW has been careful with him, holding him out of some scrimmage sessions. He has looked fine, but it is unlikely that he will match his performance level of a year ago, at least not early in the season.
"He's okay but you just don't want to stress out the knee too quick," defensive backs coach Ron Lee said. "We want him to get it back and get the job done. Get him ready without pushing him too fast."
Opposite Bell is senior corner Levonne Rowan (6-1, 191), who has all the physical tools but has been limited by injuries and inconsistency during his career.
The top reserves are very talented, but very green. Redshirt freshmen Jack Ikegwuonu (6-1, 200), a Madison Memorial product, and Allen Langford (5-11, 187) are next on the depth. True freshman Shane Carter (6-2, 190), the half brother of former NFL receiver Cris Carter and NBA player and coach Butch Carter, has been impressive since camp opened but will make youthful mistakes. All three could win a spot in the nickel or dime, or be a capable starter in a pinch. Carter is also the No. 3 free safety.
The Badgers' secondary was remarkably healthy last year, but if they have to turn deeper down the bench this season, the next in line at corner would be true freshman Prince Moody (5-11, 190), sophomore Ben Strickland (5-9, 180) or redshirt freshman Antonio Freeman (6-0, 186).
Four juniors are competing to start at the two safety spots. Penciled into the starting lineup are strong safety Johnny White (6-2, 218), a freakish athlete who just needs to clean up a few fundamentals to be an elite player; and free safety Roderick Rogers (6-2, 181), a good athlete who was making more plays as camp progressed. White did start two games last year, but neither player has a great deal of experience.
No. 2 strong safety Joe Stellmacher (6-1, 216) makes as many plays as anyone but cannot run with receivers quite as well as his three classmates. Free safety Zach Hampton (5-10, 178) has been a standout on special teams and is a ball hawk who will see the field against pass-happy opponents.
Rogers and Hampton have also practiced at cornerback and will be trusted to cover slot receivers in nickel and dime situations.
Prior to the season, Alvarez said that field goal kicking was his biggest concern. But sophomore Taylor Mehlhaff (5-11, 180) has made a huge jump from last season and appears to have won the job heading out of camp. Now, he needs to keep it going during the season. Redshirt freshman Adam Schober (5-11, 195), who also showed signs of improvement, is the backup.
Mehlhaff did well as a kickoff specialist last season and should be elite in that role this year.
Sophomore punter Ken DeBauche (6-2, 219) enjoyed a strong season last year, averaging 41.8 yards per punt. Impressively, he placed 17 punts inside the 20, and had only six touchbacks. He looks even better in fall camp this season.
DeBauche and backup punter Paul Standring (6-1, 212) double as the holders on extra points and field goals.
Do not underestimate the loss of long snapper Matt Katula, who is already considered one of the better ones in the NFL. His replacement, sophomore Steve Johnson (6-3, 247), is a good player, but there is bound to be some drop off.
Brandon Williams won the punt returner job and retained the kick return duties he has held for the past three seasons. Other potential punt returners include Brian Calhoun, Marcus Randle El and Jerry Butler. Jarvis Minton and Butler are also in the mix at kick returner.
Walk-on Ben Strickland's reps at cornerback decreased considerably since the spring, but he will be one of the Badgers' best special teams players. Other top players on the coverage units will likely include Zach Hampton and reserve strong safety James Kamoku (6-2, 211). Hampton will also be the personal protector on kick returns.